Camel Commerce Catches On

Outback safaris, steak, and yogurt fuel a growing business in Australia

AUSTRALIANS are famous for making a living off the back of a sheep. Now, some bush businessmen are trying to make money off the camel's hump.

There are camel safaris for tourists, wild and trained camels for export, and even camel steaks for those who want to throw something different on the barbie. One businessman has even concocted a yogurt based on camel's milk, which does not require refrigeration.

Although the dollar amount of camel exports might fit through the eye of a needle compared with exports of beef and sheep, there is lots of potential. "There's more and more interest, I'll give you that," says Rick Anderson, who sells camel meat and is breeding the beasts as well.

In fact, it could be said there has been a virtual explosion in the business. According to the federal Department of Primary Industries in Canberra, 200 camels were exported between 1981 and 1991. However, this includes 106 camels recently shipped to New York. "The exporters are getting more professional," says Lynette Liddle, a department official.

There are plenty of beasts to choose from. Although no one has done a recent camel census, the Northern Territory Department of Primary Industries estimated in 1986 that there were 31,570 camels shuffling around its part of the desert.

Although Australia has a lot of unusual native animals, the camel is an import. In 1840 the British brought camels into the country from the Canary Islands to see how they would fare.

Sir Thomas Elder started importing camels from Pakistan in quantity in 1866. The dromedaries replaced horses, which could not survive the long rides between watering holes. "The heyday of the camel was in the 1920s," says Noel Fullerton, a camel expert who also owns Virginia Camel Farm about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Alice Springs. "You had your buggy camel, your pack camel, your riding camel," he explains. The police even patrolled on camels until 1952.

With the completion of the railroads in the 1930s, the thirst for camels dried up. Wild herds flourished in the desert. Today, there is renewed interest in Australian camels, which Mr. Fullerton says are the healthiest in the world.

Two months ago, Ian Conway of Kings Creek Station stuffed 106 camels aboard a stretch DC-8 bound for New York City. Mr. Conway, who says he is Australia's biggest camel exporter, is now planning a trip to Dubai in February for a camel conference.

"They say Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are short good breeding camels, since a lot were killed during the Gulf war," says Mr. Conway, who hopes to sell some outback camels.

Chances are that many of the camel buyers he meets will have a stopwatch in hand. Camel racing is a big sport in the Middle East. Unfortunately, Fullerton says the Aussie camels aren't the racing type. This is too bad, since a camel that can run 10 km (6.2 miles) can bring A$20,000 ($15,130).

Unfortunately, most of the gallopers slipped through the back fence and mated with larger, slower camels. "The best riding camels have been lost to interbreeding," says Fullerton, who would like to breed racers again.

THE Australian government is also taking an interest in camels. It is funding start-up camel farms at several remote Aboriginal settlements.

"The idea is to utilize the wild animal resources on the land," says Liddle. The camels will be used for tourist operations, export, or producing milk or wool.

Recently, the Central Land Council, which administers Aboriginal land on behalf of traditional owners, warned camel catchers that permits were necessary to catch animals on tribal land. This could eventually slow down some of the operators who use land cruisers, modified jeeps, and even helicopters to round up the animals.

At the moment, Conway says there is no shortage of wild camels on public and private land. He caught three camels in three hours on his property recently. However, Mr. Anderson, who owns a herd of 120 camels, is beginning a breeding program to ensure a steady supply for his butcher business. Anderson has gotten local restaurants to carry camel chops (add salt, pepper, and gravy, and it takes like steak, he says). The business is moving right along. In 1990 he butchered 118 camels; this past year he expec ted to kill 250.

"There's a lot of interest from overseas," he says. Camel meat, he points out, is cheaper than water buffalo or crocodile, two other exotic Northern Territory specialties.

Some Territorians believe putting a camel on the plate is the wrong use for the animal. Fullerton, the Ross River Homestead, and Frontier Camel Farms, have long made money by hauling tourists around on camel rides.

Steve Jackson, the attendant at Jim's Place, a gas station and restaurant about 100 km outside Alice Springs, is dreaming of the day he builds his "gypsy coach," a sort of mobile home pulled by camels. He's planning to put solar panels on the roof to power the refrigerator and lights. Jackson and his wife Fitzy are now saving up the A$10,000 ($7,565) he expects it will cost to get the camel shack on the road. "It's the only way to see the country," he says.

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